The two of them made for an unlikely duo, the celebrity performer and the kid from Florida who dreamed of one day becoming a pro competitive gamer. And yet they connected in a virtual world, teaming up to play Call of Duty and sharing their lives — their joys, their difficulties — over a headset while battling side-by-side.

It was a dynamic that brought them closer together, despite their distinctly different social strata. And it was in this setting that Eric Pedro Cruz, a relatively anonymous 18-year-old from Florida who played under the nicknames Philosophy and Losophy, had a profound impact on Kiari Kendrell Cephus, better known to the world as rapper Offset from the group Migos.

Offset, 27, moves in a different world from most. He and his wife Cardi B are perhaps heirs to the music celebrity thrones occupied by Beyonce and Jay-Z. They speak to over 100 million followers on social media and regularly make TV and fashion-show appearances when they’re not recording platinum albums. The demands of the highly visible life come with a cost, one that has pushed Offset to sometimes take refuge in a virtual world.

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“I just be playing a [video] game because I don’t get to be in the public no more,” Offset told The Washington Post. “I don’t get to go to the grocery store. I don’t get to go to the mall, I don’t get to because it’s like ... it’s almost like you’re not human.”

The Lawrenceville, Ga.-raised performer is very much a man of his time and generation. His online video game sessions, which give him a path beyond the palace walls of celebrity, are more than just a way to have fun with strangers — they also provide a forum to make friends, hear news, and, sometime talk about difficult subjects.

“Like everybody is coming and you can’t even enjoy yourself, so I play games, just in my spare time. Just to play the game. And I play with just regular fans, kids,” the rapper said. It was also how he first encountered Cruz, a kid who would have a much larger impact in Offset’s life than he ever expected.

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“I became friends with this kid named Philosophy. I used to play the game and he really got me better at Call of Duty. He was super fire,” Offset said about the 18 year-old Cruz. “He was telling me a lot of information about esports and FaZe Clan [a top esports/gaming organization]. He was the one who was telling me like, ‘Yo, you a big influencer, people would love to watch you play the game, bro.’ He was the first one to tell me that.”

After Cruz and others told him about Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf’s $3 million win at the Fortnite World Cup, and the rapper identified the growing similarities between the impact of esports and music, Offset decided to invest in FaZe Clan.

“They selling out arenas like I sell out arenas. Like, what? It’s like the same,” Offset said. “I feel [it’s] like the same influence. People have millions of followers [in the gaming world]. People love it. Like Faze Clan, when I became a member, and they put it up, I gained like 100,000 followers in one day, in like 12 hours.”

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Offset and FaZe announced their deal on August 15. Shortly after the pact was announced, however, instead of celebrating the news with Cruz, Offset was mourning him.

Two days after Offset signed with FaZe, Cruz experienced what a police report described as hallucinations while at his home. He was taken by police to Winter Haven Hospital in Florida. Still troubled by the hallucinations, he subsequently fled, a second police report states, taking a vehicle from the hospital and driving it to the edge of a nearby lake. Police divers found his body the next morning.

A spokesperson for the country coroner’s office said the death was ruled a suicide by drowning. That conclusion is something Cruz’s family vigorously disputes. It will be several months until toxicology reports are available to investigators, but regardless of the cause, Cruz’s death marked a sad twist for a relationship forged through gaming. And Offset was not alone in his sorrow of Cruz’s passing.

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Attracting attention

Everything seemed to be going right for Cruz. In only about a year, the Auburndale, Fla., native had gone from working construction, landscaping and roofing to befriending Offset and starting to manifest his goal of going pro in esports.

People around the world had started to take notice of his talent as well, peppering his social media accounts with messages in awe of his performances. Though he was carving a new path in his small town, Cruz believed he could reach an elite level in Call of Duty and, with the launch of a major new league next year, the timing was perfect.

“He always put his heart into gaming, to prove everyone wrong who didn’t believe in him,” said his mother, Catherine Lugo. “He said, ‘You have to believe in yourself first. I know I can do it.’ ”

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Cruz’s confidence was quickly bolstered after he began playing Call of Duty seriously, by both his in-game success and support from fans. Some of whom, like Offset, eventually became friends.

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“He had a huge impact on me,” said Blas Ramos, 25, a soccer player for the Colorado Inferno of the Major Arena Soccer League 2. Ramos, who met Cruz after stumbling on his Twitch page, flew from Colorado to Florida for Cruz’s funeral, despite having never met him in person.

“For him to play with me, I felt like it was something big,” Ramos said. “He got me in with a lot of big [Call of Duty] players. … He was always trying to help everyone he could.”

Despite the rising tide of acclaim, it took Lugo some time to embrace her son’s goal.

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“I didn’t believe him,” his mother, Catherine Lugo, 35, said, regarding her son’s plan to become a professional video game player. “But he told me, ‘Mommy, you just don’t know.’ ”

After Lugo’s sister took Cruz to a tournament in Orlando, she began to understand. Her sister told her how many people approached her son, shaking his hand and telling him he would have won if he was on a stronger team.

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“As he played [Call of Duty] more, we realized how happy and confident he was, then came to understand it more,” his grandmother, Vickie Ramirez, wrote in a text message. “We came to love it, as we saw the joy it brought to Eric, which in turn gave us joy.”

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In addition to this recognition, Cruz started to make, “a lot of money off of it, and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Lugo said.

Then one day Cruz told his sister that he met Offset online.

“He asked me if I knew who Cardi B’s husband was,” said Breanna Cruz, 16. “He was so happy and excited.”

Lugo said the friendship with Offset made her son feel important, and she recalls his main feeling was gratefulness.

Like an increasing number of gamers, Cruz’s online gaming community was not just a place to talk strategies and business plans. Rather, it became a venue for something deeper.

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“We talked about some personal things. He asked about my belief in God, and some deeper conversations. Maybe I saw him as a younger brother. I really cared about him, even though I never met him,” said Ramos, who learned of Cruz’s death on social media, as did Offset.

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“It was more than just playing a game. It’s a way to have fun, laugh it out, I just felt connected, we got through stuff,” added Ramos, who said Cruz always talked about his family, how he wanted to give them a better life.

“I wanted to eventually, you know, just bring him a part of something, some way, because he was the first kid to tell me [about esports],” Offset said.

‘Much love, brother’

Offset and Ramos said they both became concerned about their friend during periods of time over the last year, when Cruz would take several days off from streaming himself playing online — unusual among both social media and gaming community stars, whose fans expect near-daily content.

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“I was like: ‘Nah, man, stay on the game. This will help you get past it,“ Offset recalled about when Cruz talked to him about quitting.

“In my eyes, he was one of the best players. It was a waste for him not to [stream],” Ramos said.

His death was also felt by the Call of Duty Blackout community, where he had a relatively modest, but intensely loyal following of people, many of whom have accounts of Cruz supporting them. A tribute video for Cruz posted by one of his gaming comrades has about 50,000 views.

Offset offered his own tribute on his Instagram story. “Sorry you were so young bro,” it read. “Fly high.”

“It’s amazing,” Cruz’s mother said. ”He always said his dream is to make it big in gaming and to realize he did just that is a blessing.”

Lugo said that one aspect of her son’s legacy stems from one of his favorite phrases. Whenever Cruz was playing and they walked past his door, they could always hear him talking with his squad mates and supporters.

“I would always hear him saying: ‘Much love, brother. Much love,’ ” Lugo said.

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